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Dining: Two You’d Never Find


(page 2 of 3)

Betty Pang, chef owner of the Green Door Cafe.

Photo: olivier koning

An intriguing translation, not far from the mark. Starting about the 15th century, Chinese traders in the Strait of Malaka began to marry Malay women. This resulted in another kind of marriage, between Chinese and Malay food. These Malay brides, known as nonya (honored ladies), combined Chinese technique and Malay spices into a distinctive cuisine, which, given the flow of trade and the currents of history, picked up traces of Portuguese, Dutch, English, Thai and Indian food as well.

Pang’s pork tenderloin is one good example of nonya cooking. The pork tips off its Chinese origins; Malaysia, being predominantly Muslim, does not do pork. Like much nonya cooking, it is built patiently out of flavor by flavor, often by marinades. In addition to a whole range of spices, Pang’s secret ingredients in the pork marinade are reconstituted dried scallops, which cost her $40 a pound, but which add a subtle richness and depth. The tenderloin is then dusted in chestnut flour and grilled, coming out remarkably tender and moist, served over chopped cabbage and topped with cilantro. Not to be missed.

Also not to be missed, when it’s available, is Pang’s nonya-style sea bass. Stir-fried with vegetables in the classic Chinese manner, this dish continues to astonish with each bite, as it unfolds layer upon layer of Malay flavors: onion, tomato paste (in nonya tradition, Pang makes her own), galangal, kaffir lime leaves, bird’s eye peppers.

If you want to appreciate the drama of nonya cuisine, just walk past the metal shelves that house Pang’s narrow pantry and breath deeply: curry powders in all colors, cloves, Szechuan peppers, star anise, Thai cinnamon, dried orange peel, dried chilies, preserved plums.

One ingredient isn’t visible. “The nonya were wives, mothers-in-law, they cooked all day for their families and passed down recipes,” says Pang. “It has to be cooking with heart.”

Pang, laboring away at an unfamiliar cuisine in an out-of-the-way location, has heart. She grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore, stopped off in London before coming to Hawaii. She studied baking at Kapi’olani Community College, baked for a time for the Hawaii Prince Hotel until she decided she wanted to know more about food than she could learn in a pastry kitchen. She worked, for a while for free, for a Thai restaurant and a Japanese restaurant. She did appetizers for David Paul’s Diamond Head Grill, cooked at Oahu Country Club.

Along the way she took a detour to Johar Baru in Malaysia, to master Malaysian cuisine. “I wanted to learn from someone who really knew, so I could do the real thing. I want people to learn this food.” Her small restaurant is often empty; people looking for a quick Chinatown lunch sometimes walk in, read her menu with growing puzzlement, and depart abruptly.

Pang shrugs. “Everyone needs money, but I do not worry about it so much,” she says. “To me, the first thing is to get the food right. When the food is right, then everything will be OK.”

Pang’s remarkable, multilayered food is served on Styrofoam plates; it costs only $7 to $10 an entree. If she’ll let you pay for it. That first time, she wouldn’t take money for that remarkable soup. “But we liked it,” we protested.

“I just wanted you to taste it,” she replied.

She has soft drinks and makes fresh cider daily from 20 pounds of apples. You can bring your own beer or wine (a Riesling, not too dry).

There’s so much heart and flavor in her dishes that every one of her dozen seats should be filled at every meal, with people whose palates are primed for this kind of excitement, who understand how much they are getting for such a small price. You should have to beg to get into the Green Door.

Mitch’s Sushi
524 Ohohia St.
Daily from 11:30 a.m., last seating 7:30 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

Begging won’t work at Mitch’s. There are only 13 seats, five at the sushi counter and two tables of four, five at a stretch. When the place is full, it’s full. About eight oclock the night we were there, there was a woman at the door, asking for a table for four.

She was met by proprietor, Douglas “Mitch” Mitchell. Mitchell, who it seems natural to call Mitch, is 60-something. With his white hair and beard, he looks a little like Hemingway—if the great writer had been better natured. In fact, given the twinkle in his eye, Mitch perhaps looks more like Santa Claus, if Santa spent more time deep-sea fishing.

Mitch listened to the woman sympathetically. But he wasn’t about to squeeze four people in or make his chefs stay late.

Douglas “Mitch” Mitchell runs Mitch’s Sushi
for fish and fun.

Photo: olivier koning

“Ah, too bad,” he said, when the four departed. Then he brightened right up: “They’ll be back. Next time they’ll know to make a reservation.”

So now you know. Since Mitch wants you there by 7:30 p.m. for the last seating, and since Mitch’s is out of the way, to say the least, here are some quick directions: Drive out by the airport on Nimitz. If you’re coming from town, turn left at the Alamo Car Rental on Ohohia Street. Drive down a few blocks through an industrial area that, yes, looks deserted and spooky at night. That’s Mitch’s on your right, in the front of a fish distribution warehouse.

Seven years ago, tired of the real estate business in his native South Africa, Mitch moved to Honolulu. His son, Craig, had lived here for 20 years and owned Dow Distribution, which imports oysters, lobsters, salmon from New Zealand, abalone from Tasmania, fresh fish from as far away as Spain. “To give me something to do, he turned this front area into a poke shop,” recalls Mitch. “I learned to make all kinds of poke.”

Mitch ran that business until he shut down the shop to nurse his wife through the last years of a fatal illness. Six months ago, Mitch and his son reopened the front area, this time as a sushi bar. “The idea was to keep me out of trouble,” says Mitch.

Do people from South Africa eat sushi? “No, no,” laughs Mitch. “If they find you eating raw fish, they lock you up and put you in an asylum. Seriously, there may be one sushi bar somewhere in Johannesburg, maybe.” (Actually, there are 12, in a town of 2.4 million people.)

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Honolulu Magazine June 2019
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